Land of Talismans: Dante’s Story

Vue-sur-Potosi-bon[1]

While I await the arrival of my grandson, I write Land of Talismans, #4 in the Night Angels Chronicles. These books have been inspired by my travels all over the world. This excerpt tells us more about the rebel Dante, a Yazidi by human birth. He takes Sera to Potosi in Bolivia to show her how he became a rebel.

I found we had landed on a high mountain plateau. It felt like early morning. I had lost track of time, of days. I was living outside of normal constraints, moving where I wished, on whims. On instincts, perhaps.

Wind moaned, dust swirled. This was a desolate yet beautiful place. Below us lay a red-roofed city, stretching far across a valley. At its center rose glorious colonial Spanish churches and administrative buildings. From there, the city spread and the further it went, the more tumbled-down and neglected it became. It was as if the creators of the central beauty had used the outskirts to casually toss their trash in heaps, which had then been gathered by the poor into makeshift homesteads.

Dante seated himself on a nearby rock and I did the same.

“Welcome to Potosi, Bolivia,” he said.

“Why here?” I said. I had expected him to take me to where he had been raised, in the northern mountains of Iraq somewhere.

potosi devil

The devil of the mountain 

“Because this is the first place I came on my own, after I left the one who turned me. This is where I first practiced the ways of the rebels. It is a place of such contrasting beauty and suffering. It is a place where the piety of the church and the worship of the devil coexist, almost in harmony. What I saw here decided my path. This city was once the largest and richest in the world.”

Gold Altar in Santo Domingo Church

He gestured toward the mountains behind us. “Silver mines. The Spanish got their hands on the mines. Millions of people have died, children, feeding the greed of the Spaniards. The streets down there were once paved in silver. Eventually, it ran out, but then, there were other minerals to be dug out of the earth. Humans have insatiable appetites, as do vampires.”

He stopped for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Then, he began to speak, telling me his story.

“”I am relatively young, compared to your denizen friends. I was born a human in the year 1798, in the mountainous region of northwestern Iraq.  I was–I am–a Yazidi. Perhaps the most misunderstood and persecuted people in the world. Muslims and Christians hate us as devil worshipers. Most recently, the Islamic State has swallowed up our territory, forcing us to flee, convert, or be killed. Ours is the oldest religion in the world. We believe in one god, but we also believe in an angel Tawusi Melek, who defied god and served as an intermediary between man and the divine. The way we describe or refer to Tawusi Melek, Muslims somehow have decided we are talking about the Quranic description of Shaytan–the devil–even though Tawusi Melek is a force for good in our religion.”

“So, this angel is interpreted also by Christians as the devil–Lucifer?” I said.

Dante nodded. “It’s all stupid talk, you understand. All these words that divide us. Different interpretations. Lucifer is the father of us all. But where, I wonder, is our mother? Perhaps she is the ultimate god above us all?”

“That’s something I never thought of before,” I said.

“And perhaps Lucifer is just another soul like the rest of us, seeking redemption.”

I nodded. “I wonder about these things. I’ve asked Strejan, but he has few answers.”

“Strejan is a wise and learned denizen. I know you question whether you can trust the Night Angels. I believe you can trust them as much as you can trust anyone who truly does their best to live a good life under impossible circumstances. But whatever happens in the end, Sera, even if they betray you, it doesn’t mean they are any less good than you or I. Remember, they have the same trust issues about you that you have about them.”

I had never thought of it quite like this before. “It’d be nice if there was an obvious way to tell what was good and what was evil.”

“Those who look for absolutes, who claim to have found them, are the most dangerous of all.”

“It was Blanca who turned me.” He said this so suddenly, so unexpectedly, it took me a moment to even realize he had changed the subject.

Some of the heaviness fell away from Dante and he grinned. “Yeah, that little firecracker. My people have faced genocide many times over. There are only some 800,000 of us left. It was like this when I was growing up.  Fear. Persecution. Hatred. When I was twenty, I made a pilgrimage with my mother and father and my betrothed to the sacred city of Lalish, as all Yazidi should do. There, on the night we arrived, I left my family at an inn and went to meet some of the men of our group. But I never got to the meeting place. In a narrow street I came upon some bandits who were attacking a group of pilgrims. I went to help them but someone pushed me aside so forcefully I was flung hard against a wall. I must have passed out for a brief moment because when I came to, I saw this hooded figure with a sword, cutting down the bandits. The figure was so small, so insignificant in stature, and yet it radiated power, like a young, vibrant star, pulsing in the cold, dead universe surrounding it. When the battle was finished and the bandits lay dead or mortally wounded, the figure turned, without even a word to the stunned pilgrims, and walked away, right past me, as if I, too, did not exist.

“I never gave a thought to my next action. I simply stood up to follow. I kept my distance, but of course I didn’t fool the warrior who disappeared around a corner and when I went to turn the corner, jumped out and grabbed me by the throat, pinning me against the wall.

“I saw with shock that it was a woman holding me with such strength that I was powerless to fight against her. Yet her features were delicate, she had such a small pointed chin that looked somehow so vulnerable. Her lips were parted and much to my amazement I saw two sharp fangs. Her eyes were black, the white surrounding them tinged with blood. From the core of her being rage and torment radiated outward like a living thing. In that moment of facing her for the first time, I felt that if she killed me, I would gladly go into eternity. To have my life taken by such a one would surely send me to a higher plane in my next existence.

“But she did not kill me. She let go and I dropped to the ground. Understand that I was a strong young man, filled with the arrogance that goes with it, yet I had been humbled to the point of obeisance. I could not comprehend what had happened to me. She walked away, still without a word. I got up and went after her.

She turned and growled like an animal–the first sound I’d heard from her lips. But she didn’t attack me again. She walked away. And again I followed her. She ignored me, pretended I wasn’t there, but I was beginning to hope that perhaps she was testing me, and that perhaps she wasn’t as adverse to me being there as she tried to appear.

I smiled. “You were already beginning to know her. That sounds just like Blanca.”

Dante smiled back. “Yes, always hiding her true feelings. I followed her out of the city to her camp, hidden between some rocks with a narrow opening. I stayed my distance, at the entrance, but I wouldn’t leave. She continued to ignore me. This went on for days, maybe weeks. I don’t remember. I followed her. She ignored me.

“What about your family, your betrothed?” I asked.

Dante shook his head. “I never went back to them. Never gave them another thought. I don’t know what they must have thought of my disappearance. It didn’t matter. This thing that had happened to me, this encounter, how could I not pursue it? One moment in time had completely altered my perspective, my reasoning, my very reason for living. All that mattered was following this otherworldly creature, wherever it led me.

“And then on night, as I lay in a kind of stupor, exhausted almost to the point of death for I hadn’t eaten in I don’t know how long, I looked up to find her standing over me. I thought it must be an hallucination. Above her dark head the stars shone like jewels. I could not see her face, only the glint of her fangs when she opened her mouth.

“She had not spoken to me, not once, but now, for the fist time since I had followed after her, she did.

“You know Blanca’s voice, her mocking tone. It was like that then, but with an underlying sweetness. ‘I think I have grown used to you. I think I must keep you.'”

Dante stopped speaking, overcome by the intimacy of what he was telling me. When he spoke again, it was almost imperceptible.

“In the moment of hearing her voice, I lost all of myself into her. To say I fell in love. What does that mean? I fell into infinity.”

“She turned you,” I offered.

“Yes. You know how it is, there is no adequate description. Except for all of us, depending on our circumstances, our need, our connection to the one who turns us, the experience is unique.”

He looked at me gravely. “Yours is the most unique of us all. To be turned by the five Night Angels. To have drunk of all their blood. To have survived.” His gaze held deep respect. “Oh how you must worry Lucifer with the potential of your power!”

His words frightened me. “Stop. It terrifies me when people insinuate such things. Just continue with your story. Please.”

He nodded. “After that, we were inseparable for perhaps one year. The battle against vampires raged. Vampires were being captured and imprisoned in crypts all over the world by denizens families. The Night Angels had not yet given themselves that name, but they were a family and I was supposed to be one of them.”

“What happened?” I asked.

Dante gathered a handful of small stones and we both watched as he let them fall slowly through his fingers back to the ground.

“I was a Yazidi, remember. I could not believe that Lucifer was evil–or anyone else for that matter. For me it was more complex. We had our arguments. In the end, Blanca and I parted ways, as I did with all denizens. But Blanca and I never lost our love for one another. And although most denizens despise and disapprove of rebels, it is different with the Night Angels, as you have seen for yourself.

“But now things are more serious. Because we have chosen different paths and because of the tensions within the denizen world, the factions, the growing distrust, the possibility of the queen escaping. Well, we find ourselves increasingly at odds with one another. Denizens have never fought against one another. Not until that night above the Gore research Institute, when we tried to free Ruben. Rebels and denizens have maintained an uneasy truce, a mutual respect. But now, sides will have to be chosen. Darker days will bring tougher choices. Denizens are impeded by their traditions, their need to assuage their guilt. Oh, it is their traditions that have given them purpose as well. It is a fine balance.”

“This path you chose that is different from denizens’, what is it?” I said.

Dante got up. “It’s why I brought you here.”